Practice Self Care

For many of us, finding one’s vocation in the nonprofit sector means that we are motivated by something greater than a salary.  Indeed, often the rewards of our work far exceed a “job” or “making a living.”  And for the most fortunate nonprofit professionals, the work is not even a career . . . it’s a calling.

Human services, the environment, education, relief work, community organizing, social justice, poverty alleviation, conflict resolution: this can be an immensely rewarding and deeply meaningful way to make a difference in the world.

However, being mission-driven (i.e., rather that driven simply by dollars) can give you a sense that because you are striving for a higher purpose, some of the usual rules about employment and the day-to-day challenges of life don’t somehow pertain to you. We sometimes think there is some sort of formula or trade-off, i.e., I work so hard all day and so many evenings making a difference with at-risk youth, why should I have to exercise/rest/play?

There’s the catch. We save the world . . . and neglect ourselves.

Too many nonprofit professionals neglect themselves in the name of doing good deeds. Finding balance in our lives is a genuine struggle. You may be one of the most  respected people in your field, you may have honors and accolades covering your walls, you may touch peoples’ lives on a daily basis. You may have results on people served and long-term, system-change outcomes that impress the most prestigious and rigorous funders. But if you’re ill . . . overweight . . . exhausted . . . grabbing junk food on the fly . . . unable to sleep or enjoy life . . . disconnected from family or friends .  .  or abusing alcohol, then you’re really not winning the game at all.

Among the essential leadership lessons for nonprofit executives, perhaps the most overlooked one is to practice self care.

Managing your personal good health and well-being involves so much more than brushing your teeth or taking vitamins. (Although, of course, do that too.) Your overall well-being encompasses many factors, including the following five essential areas:

Medical. We all have appointments or preventive screenings that we have postponed. What are you waiting for? A wake-up call or an emergency? Just pick up the phone (or mouse) and do it. What advice have you ignored? Can you honestly say that you’re getting enough exercise?

Emotional. Unleashing anger, acting irrationally, or feeling inappropriately weepy are all signs that your emotional life is out of sync. Obviously, this is a complicated issue. Take a walk or sit in a quiet place, and make a candid inventory of what’s missing or not working. When is the last time you dedicated a whole day just to fun?

Intellectual. Set aside time for reading, film, theatre, museums, genuine conversation, or lifelong learning. (Note: parking your glazed self, exhausted, at day’s end in front of most of what’s on television doesn’t usually count as an intellectual endeavor. Nor does mindless web surfing.)

Social. Catch yourself when you say, “We’ll have to get together sometime.” Get out your Blackberry and book a date. Then keep it. Meet your neighbors. Notice how rarely you go out in the evenings or on weekends when it isn’t a work-related program or fund-raiser. Call a friend. Connect with family. Stop during the workweek for a real meal over lunch-and make it social at least now and then.

Spiritual. This may be taking time for reflection or prayer, walking in the woods, or watching a sunset. It may be savoring music or other creative endeavors. This is of course a very personal choice; you know what to do to rejuvenate your soul. What is hard for some people to accept is that it is OK to be a little selfish at times. Remember that ‘serving others,’ while also a source of profound spiritual inspiration, may be the very thing that you are overdoing . . . at the expense of your own body and spirit.

We have all heard this message dozens of times on airline flights:

“Please adjust your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others.”

Think about it!

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